Rosenwald students recall struggles and hope at reopening of St. George school
An historic school built for African Americans in 1925 is restored and reopened in St. George, S.C. as a community center and museum. It will share the stories of those who created it and were educated there.
Painted bright white with a red, tin roof, the St. George Rosenwald school in Dorchester County looks new. Inside, former student Clara Britt is excited to sit behind a small, wooden desk again.
“I never thought that this would happen,” says Britt, giggling like a schoolgirl. She’s about to turn 102-years-old.
Sitting beside Britt is former classmate Ordie Brown. He’s 94-years-old and met his wife here.
“She was taking home economics,” says Brown. “They were practicing how to cook. She would give me lunch out the window.”
Brown and Britt are reunited for the reopening of the historic St. George school. After years of fundraising, planning and construction, the restored schoolhouse will now serve as a community center and museum, sharing the story of African Americans denied an education and the hope they found in schools like St. George Rosenwald.
Built in 1925, the schoolhouse is known as a Rosenwald school because it was funded in part by Julius Rosenwald. He was the son of Jewish immigrants who became the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Rosenwald met educator Booker T. Washington in 1911. The founder of the Tuskegee Institute believed education was the key to African Americans breaking free from generations of oppression.
Together, the wealthy business owner and the educator born into slavery, set out to build schools for Black children.
At the time, 90% of African Americans lived in the South. Yet, schools for Blacks were just shacks with merely a fraction of the funding as White schools, if they existed at all.
Rosenwald offered to match funding in Black communities that raised money for schools and got the support of local white schoolboards. The idea was to get communities to work together.
Black families, already paying taxes for white schools, struggled, but came up with the money. They knew education could be life changing.
“If you’re a parent who can’t read or write, you want your kids to be able to that,” says former state Sen. John Matthews.
Matthews is grateful for the education he received at a Rosenwald school in Bowen, S.C. He helped raise money for the St. George restoration.
Between 1917 and 1932, roughly 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built, educating more than 600,000 Black children. Their graduates include civil right activists like Medgar Evers, John Lewis, and Maya Angelou.
Today, 500 Rosenwald schoolhouses remain but many are in disrepair. Former students like Ralph James want to save them.
“We see the progress, that in spite of these things, we tell the story of how persons made it,” says James. “How they were successful in life.”
A retired municipal judge, James attended the St. George school until it closed in 1954. He’s made it his mission to resurrect the schoolhouse and proudly gave a tour during its reopening earlier this month.
James says the six-teacher schoolhouse is one of the largest in the state, repurposed with electricity and bathrooms, amenities that did not exist when he was a student. He points to potbelly stoves and brick chimneys that warmed children who often had to walk miles because there were no school buses for Black children. And, like most Rosenwald schools, the building features tall windows with classrooms strategically placed.
“Because they had no light, they had no power and they didn’t want shadows on their desks,” explains Micah Thompson with the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, which helped with the restoration.
Congressman Jim Clyburn joined the tour as a special guest during the reopening. His late wife graduated from a Rosenwald School. He said preserving them pays tribute.
“Making sure that we honor the blood, sweat and tears of those who made this community what it is today.”
The congressman helped celebrate Brown and Britt as members of the school’s first graduating class. Brown spoke about playing basketball for the school with the team making a big tournament. But they’d only played on a dirt court.
“We went to the white high school and asked to practice on a wood floor,” said Brown. “But we were told no.”
Britt, meantime, was smitten with Clyburn.
“I had no idea I would ever meet you,” she said.
But Britt took issue with a banner that read she and Brown graduated in 1950.
“Our class is the class of 49. So, I would like them to change that sign,” said Britt as a roomful of guests erupted in laughter.
And, who’s going to argue? Britt is known as the student who once rode an ox to school to maintain her perfect attendance.